Reflections on the Chesterton Carol

Sometime around 2010, contralto Imelda Franklin Bogue approached me to set the Christmas poem of G.K. Chesterton’s “A Christmas Carol” to music.

I was newly married, working on my doctorate, and glad for any paid commission during struggle times. I had also just finished reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a very sophisticated intellectual work. So, reading the lyrics of the Chesterton’s A Christmas Carol, I was shocked at first by the seeming child-like simplicity in the text.

Yet on closer read, this simplicity is deceptive: Chesterton’s carol opens up into a deep contemplation on the shattering nature of the Incarnation.  There is also the sweet Marian devotion subtext, and the way the Christ child seems to grow in each stanza, from infancy (laying in Mary’s lap) to being a small child standing on her knee. In the first three stanzas, the parenthetical sections of each stanza look outward towards the world, disappearing in the second half of the final stanza, which strikes me either as the Parousia or its anticipation.

Naturally as a composer this excited me: a gorgeous rhythmically simple text with deep, intertwining theological themes. Chesterton’s words called to me for an introspective and complex setting. And yet Imelda wanted more of a simple carol, and so I set to work trying to imitate Chesterton’s approach in music: that of simplicity illuminating a deeper, richer meaning.

Writing a Christmas carol had always been a secret dream of mine:  As the son of Polish immigrants our holy days were saturated with singing the deep and rich carols of that region: deeply Catholic songs of clear mourning or soaring exaltation. Later I grew very fond of the English carol tradition, and I marinated in these two traditions as I set about to find the music for Chesterton’s Carol.

And so as is typical in the life of a modern classical or sacred music composer I hear the Carol sung beautifully once by Imelda in Christmas of 2011.  I hear a few encouraging compliments, and then it went on the shelf as most new compositions do. Today’s classical music and sacred music composers will spend months – even years – toiling away at works which are only performed once and then shelved.  Why?  I think this a logical consequence of the sundering between composers and audiences which took place as a result of the modernist revolution: we know longer “know” each-other; Meanwhile audiences naturally distrust new music after the near century of abuse they’ve been put through. The public have retreated into the safe haven of the dependable classics, which leaves composers who would dare to humbly submit new works to the tradition feeling marginalized and of course seeking outside sources of income.

Then there is the reality that the Church itself is no longer a major patron of the arts and the connect between composers and Catholic cathedrals and parishes has been severed.  The Benedict XVI Institutes remarkable efforts to heal this breach are deeply encouraging to me and to other sacred music composers.

Credit for the survival of the “Chesterton Carol” here goes to my wife, who insisted that the “Chesterton Carol” was some of my best work, and periodically pressed me to do more with it.

Its revival came in the most unlikely time: the Covid shutdowns. A daring small group of Catholic musicians I had worked to gather on Facebook brainstormed the question: how do we keep the music alive as the world shuts down? And so the Vos Omnes Virtual Choir was born. Our first virtual choir performance our own Frank LaRocca’s Agnus Dei from the Mass of the Americas. For the group’s third effort, we did the “Chesterton Carol.”

The Benedict XVI Institute’s sponsorship of this recording by the Vos Omnes Virtual Choir has generated more than 9,000 views, a very big concert hall that encourages all the musicians involved.  Our latest joint venture, a new setting of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” has jumped to more than 7,000 views in just a few weeks.

Listen to the “Chesterton Carol” this Christmas here. May this beautifully performed rendition bring you close to the knee of Mary, moving from the tender beauty of the contemplation of a newborn infant to the apocalyptic adulation of the singing of the stars.  Merry Christmas.

Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose work has been performed across Europe and the United States. A professor at Kent State University at Stark, he will soon release his second portrait disc – Metanoia – through DUX Records; it is a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2017 Naxos album “Blood, Forgotten.” He is also the composer for the Mass of the Ages trilogy.

[Editors Note: You can find the score of the Chesterton Carol by contacting Mark Nowakowski at his website below. The piece is currently available in three configurations (with the composer granting his permission for other arrangements):
*Voice & Piano
*SATB, Organ, Strings (with piano reduction)
*SATB and Chamber Orchestra (the version from this video)


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